Traditional asset management strategy has emphasized building barriers to entry or closely guarding unique assets to maintain a firm’s comparative advantage. A new “Inverted Firm” paradigm, however, has emerged. Under this strategy, firms share data seeking to become platforms by opening digital services to third-parties and capturing part of their external surplus. This contrasts with a “pipeline” strategy where the firm itself creates value. This paper quantitatively estimates the effect of adopting an inverted firm strategy through the lens of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), a key enabling technology. Using both public data and that of a private API development firm, we document rapid growth of the API network and connecting apps since 2005. We then perform difference-in-difference and synthetic control analyses and find that public firms adopting public APIs grew an additional 38.7% relative to similar nonadopters. We find no significant effect from the use of APIs purely for internal productivity, the pipeline strategy. Within the subset of firms that adopt public APIs, those that attract more third-party complementors and those that become more central to the network see faster growth. Using variation in network centrality caused by API degradation, an instrumental variables analysis confirms a causal role for APIs in firm market value. Finally, we document an important downside of external API adoption: increased risk of data breach. Overall, these facts lead us to conclude that APIs have a large and positive impact on economic growth and do so primarily by enabling an inverted firm as opposed to pipeline strategy.
Benzell, Seth G.; Hersh, Jonathan; and Van Alstyne, Marshall, "How APIs Create Growth by Inverting the Firm" (2022). Economics Faculty Articles and Research. 283.